“I don’t get it. Why do people go to church twice a year?” one of my co-workers blurted out this week in a brazen workplace violation of the holy trinity of taboo topics: politics, religion, and will-you-cover-for-me-while-I’m-on-vacation.
No one spoke.
He rescued himself from his own pregnant pause by continuing, “That’s like going to the gym twice a year and hoping to get results.”
I’ve thought about his micro-monologue all week. I’ve
thought about what my answers used to be. I’ve thought about what your answers
Why are there so many Chreastians — the Urban Dictionary term for Christmas and Easter Christians — who come out of the woodwork right about now? For sure, some strangers will slide into pews this Easter because family members dragged invited them to church. Others get swept up in the tyranny of the urgent or the pleasures of life but feel a call to come home to their church roots for the holidays. It feels nostalgic and nice and good.
But I wonder if the big answer for so many of us is that we just thought our lives would be so much more.
We know we’ve made choices that hurt other people. Or we’re stunted by those who hurt us. We’ve moved through life with low-grade resentment or lack of contentment. We abandoned relationships thinking we’d be free, but we only found new prisons. We tried using stuff or prestige or painkillers to fill up, but we ended up needing a little bit more every time.
Do you remember yourself in that scenario? Wow, I do. I dressed up and showed up, hoping to clean up. I drove into the parking lot, talking myself into driving right back home, only to somehow park and make it to the church’s intimidating front doors. I hoped the greeting wouldn’t be too overzealous or weird. I slipped into the back pew, feeling like a turtle without my shell. I wondered why a bunch of people looked so happy singing to Someone they couldn’t see. I couldn’t imagine feeling that kind of joy. I just wanted to feel good.
Of course, thinking a twice-a-year trip to church will cleanse us is like thinking twice a year on the treadmill will burn off all the pizza and beer. Sinners need more than a service. We need a Savior.
But service is a start. And Easter crowds camouflage us enough to give it a go.
Easter keeps twice-a-year Christians from feeling too exposed, like one of my friends who recently had to go up to the bar to get a soda. She doesn’t drink, so she didn’t know the rules. Should she just call out to the bartender? Wriggle between two barstools to place her order? Wait until a barstool opened up? Just leave empty-handed because she didn’t know what to do? “It occurred to me,” she said, “that this is how unfamiliar it must feel to visit church.”
The prodigal son
It’s no coincidence that my reading plan took me this morning to one of the most familiar passages in the Bible — the parable of the prodigal son. You probably know the story: an entitled young brat presumptuously cashes in on daddy’s money, lives the playboy life, squanders his riches, and scampers back home.
The prodigal son was as broken as he was broke. His bare feet ached and so did his bared pride. His tattered rags were a fitting covering for his threadbare soul. Yet, while he was just a spot on the horizon, his dad saw him. He’d been watching for his boy all that time. He couldn’t contain himself.
That’s the love the Father has for the stranger sitting in the back row on Sunday.
That’s the love He has for the husband you’ll drag to church
even though he doesn’t want to come.
That’s the love He has for the barely-holding-it-together mom who’s dressed like she’s going to a nightclub, but man, it’s her Sunday best and if we blow that moment with the side-eye then it’s time to deep-dive right now into Matthew 23:27.
That’s the love He has for me every time I veer off, do stupid things, and come back home.
That the love He has for you.
You may have screwed up. Your Sunday best may be covering your threadbare soul. You may not even know who you are anymore. But God’s been watching for you all this time. He knows exactly who you are. He’ll run toward you with affection and restoration. He’ll plan a feast with filet mignon.
He won’t be harsh with you or shame you. If that ever happened to you in a church, I’m so sorry. It wasn’t supposed to go that way. The church is full of work-in-progress people and we don’t always imitate how awesome the Father is at grace and mercy. Sometimes we focus more on behavior than the Savior. Sometimes we forget that we once wore rags.
God knows how to handle your heart even when people don’t. You can come clean to God without coming to God clean. He laid everything down on a cross to get to you.
That’s the difference between the gym and church on Easter Sunday. The treadmill doesn’t care if you come back. And free weights won’t make you free.
And that’s why a bunch of people will look so happy on Sunday singing to Someone they can’t see.